Monday, March 6, 2017

Umstead Trail Marathon: The Race That Fights Back

Year of the Woodpecker!
This year was my third time running Umstead Trail Marathon, and the race continues to confound me.  I'll say right now that I'm happy with my result, but it wasn't a pretty process getting there.
For those not familiar with Umstead Trail Marathon (UTM), it's a different atmosphere that attracts something of a cult following each year.  There are no medals or age group awards.  There are only wooden plaques for the top 15 finishers in each gender.  These plaques are in the shape of that particular year's mascot, or "critter." The 15th place plaque is exactly the same as the 1st place plaque, so you're either in the awards, or you're not.  The species of the critter is a closely guarded secret until packet pickup, and all of the past critters have been animals native to Umstead State Park.  This year was the year of the Woodpecker.  My first UTM (year of the Bat) was my second marathon, and I finish just outside the awards with a 3:48.  A couple years later, during the year of the Horned Caterpillar, I ran a 3:36 for a training run-turned-race to finish 13th and took home a plaque.
Having a couple of UTMs under my belt, I considered myself familiar with course and its challenges, and I also believed I was a serious contender, maybe for top 5, but certainly for top 15.  Sam, my training buddy and sometime nemesis, rode up with me.  We both expected he would finish after me, but still within the awards.  Nevertheless, I had to be on my toes; he was my nemesis after all.  My other loose goal was to try and beat my Grandfather Mountain Marathon time of 3:19:15.  Comparing those two races would be like comparing apples to oranges, but both would be significantly harder than an average road marathon, just for different reasons.
The course is built for pain.  Even though the race is a "trail" marathon, there are really only about 6 miles of technical single-track trail on the course, all within the first 8 miles.  The rest of the course consists of wide, groomed bridal trails about the width of a dirt road, but strewn with hills of all shapes, sizes, and grades.  The only flat and smooth part of the course is an out-and-back in the first couple miles before entering the uneven footing of the single-track.  The first couple miles lull you in, then the single-track softens you up, and the long, relentlessly grinding hills finish you off.
The elevation profile for Umstead Trail Marathon.  A little hilly.

The race started at 9:00 sharp, and I settled into a groove right away in about 8th or 9th position.  The first half dozen or so runners formed a lead pack right away and started creating some space within the first mile.  I was not about to chase them.  If any faded back, so be it, but I was falling into a small pace group with a couple other runners anyway.  When we dipped into the single-track, things started to get fun.  The trails were not super-technical, but there were enough roots and rocks to keep you engaged and using up brain energy the whole time.  There were endless opportunities for twisted ankles, stubbed toes, or wipe-outs.  I avoided those this time, but I did have to do some hopping around.  On the switchbacks, I could see that Sam was not far behind me.  This wasn't surprising, given the surface.  While I consider myself a decently fast trail-runner, Sam is far more efficient on the uneven terrain.  Unlike most runners, he doesn't really lose pace when transitioning from smooth to uneven ground.  Where I tend to scamper, he glides.
By the end of the final section of single-track, I had tracked down and passed a couple more runners, but a taller runner with a bushy mustache had passed me and opened up some space.  While I was glad I wouldn't have to worry about my footing anymore, I knew that the rest of the course would be one long, grueling climb after another.  Most of the remainder of the race was one long out-and-back, so every uphill and downhill would be one we would go back down or up on the way back.  The longest of these was "The Easy Way Out" hill, which was over a mile long and led up to the 10th mile marker.  Some roving aid cyclists were about, and one said to me "You're about a third of the way up," after I had been climbing for a few tough minutes already.  "Thanks," I said with just a hint of sarcasm.
Miles and hills went by, and while the nice weather brought many runners, hikers, and cyclists to the park, I was largely alone for my part in the race.  I did a mental self-inventory after the tropical paradise-themed aid station at the halfway point.  I was feeling a bit beat up for this point in the race.  Not the best sign.  It could have been worse though.  As I was struggling at what felt like a shuffle up one of the hills, Mr. Mustache faded back to me and looked much more broken.
As I neared the turnaround at mile 15, I noted that the lead pack had broken up a bit, but I was in sixth place with a large, hard-to-close gap between me and the 5th place runner.  I also noticed that while my gap on Mr. Mustache was growing, Sam was only 2-2.5 minutes behind me, which was not that far with 11+ miles to go and what felt like an early bonk coming on...
As I rolled through the same series of hills I had just traversed--only this time in reverse--I adopted the same mindset as I did at Grandfather Mountain: don't hammer the hills, just get up them.  It was nice to see the rest of the field on their outbound leg, including several runners I had come to know from this race and other regional running events.  I peeked over my shoulder every now and again for pursuers, and I saw no one.  Mr. Mustache had fallen off the edge of the Earth, and I couldn't see Sam, but I knew he was lurking...
Circa mile 16.  I was feeling a bit worse than I look in this pic.

From mile marker 18 to 19.5 was one long, slow climb, not unlike the one leading up to mile 10.  In fact, this climb came to that same aid station, just on the inbound leg.  With GPS being inaccurate in the park, I had been eyeballing my splits and doing the math in my head at each mile marker.  I had been running in the mid-7:30 for most of the race, which was pretty good on this course.  Mile 19 was 8+ minutes, but I told myself, "It's okay.  You have over a mile of downhill now for a nice, fast, 7-minute mile."  That 20th mile was not nice, fast, or 7-minutes.  My turnover was gone, and I knew my last 10k would be all about damage control.  Worse yet, some of the most challenging climbs of the course were still yet to come.  And I kept looking over my shoulder...
I slogged up the "Corkscrew Hill" climb in the 22nd mile, and knew my next aid station would lead to the dreaded Cedar Ridge out-and-back, but I was still going steadily uphill just to even get there.  When I made it to the Cedar Ridge aid station, I left my water bottle there knowing I would pick it up again in about 2.5 miles.  No sense in carrying it for the worst climb of the race.
Me approaching Cedar Ridge aid station.  Don't I look excited?

Even on my third time running this race, it surprised me how long that stupid out-and-back was.  It was especially awful because it was just a means to an end: to get the distance right and add a horrible hill.  Shortly after going down the aptly named "Wheels-Fell-Off Hill," I ran a short way to the turnaround and came back to see Sam finishing his descent just as I was starting my ascent.  Sam was way too close for comfort, and when he would reach the turnaround in after another minute, he would know exactly how close he was.  Not good.  An alarm rang in my head that shouted "Not again!"
The rest of Cedar Ridge was interminable.  I picked up my water bottle at the last aid station and made my way toward "Cemetery Hill" at mile 25.  This S.O.B. of a hill is not only a long grinder, but you can see the entire hill staring back down at you from the bottom.  I low-geared it and chugged towards the top.  At one point, I looked over my shoulder and saw no one chasing, so I allowed myself a 10-second walk break.  However, 5 seconds in, I peeked over my shoulder again to see Sam's bright orange shirt coming around the corner to the bottom of the hill!  F***!  I had to start running again and not let up the rest of the way!
I wouldn't see Sam again for the rest of that last mile, but it seemed like I was looking behind me more than I was looking ahead.  I knew on Cemetery Hill that I would not achieve my goal of beating my GMM time, and there was no way I was catching 5th place, so I just maintained my shuffle to finish solidly in 6th place with a 3:22 flat.  Sam came in 91 seconds later for a secure 7th place finish, but he looked a lot better than I did.  I was absolutely destroyed.

Glad to be done...and to have held off Sam!

I'm sure I'll come back to Umstead Trail Marathon again, but maybe in a couple years, after I've once again forgotten how hard the course is!

7th and 6th place overall!